Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Fraud Taints Science

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Fraud Taints Science

Article excerpt


CALIFORNIA'S twin temblors in late June were a pointed reminder that the state bears a greater risk from earthquakes than any other. To meet that risk, California has developed one of the most respected crop of earthquake scientists in the world.

It therefore came as a surprise to many in California's scientific community when the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $25 million grant to create the national Earthquake Engineering Research Center not at one of the many prestigious research universities in California, but at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The decision was all the more surprising considering SUNY-Buffalo's proposal: Rather than concentrate on the impact of earthquakes in the Western part of the country, focus on earthquake damage in the Eastern United States, which is far less costly to the federal government. And acknowledging that it lacked the expertise, SUNY proposed to recruit the top names in earthquake research - many, one would suppose, from California itself!

The NSF Earthquake Engineering Research Center is but one of many cases explored in detail by Robert Bell in "Impure Science." In this book, which is sure to be loathed by the old-guard scientific establishment, Bell shows time and again how the supposedly "objective" scientific-research process is subverted by ego, infighting, and the lure of cold cash.

Bell opens his well-researched account with a stunning attack on the scientific community's sacrosanct system of "peer review," which he says often means "review by one's competition" in today's highly competitive world of scientific research.

Scientists use peer review for everything from deciding which grants to approve to choosing which articles get published in the prestigious journals. But all too often, writes Bell, peer review simply becomes a process by which powerful, well-established scientists can reward their friends and frustrate their rivals.

The review panels are often kept secret or restricted for apparently political reasons, he writes. In the case of the national earthquake center, for example, the peer-review panel was curiously without any earthquake engineering experts from states west of the Rockies. …

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